When bizzers ask about the criteria for Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch list, there’s one key trait that sets these achievers apart: Comics create their own material. They’re more than just funny actors.
“They’re material-generating machines,” says Cory Edwards, a standup/improv comic who estimates that he must have performed on “a thousand stages in 10 years” to pay the bills while he was a struggling independent filmmaker (his big break came in making the hit toon “Hoodwinked”).
“A good standup already wears multiple hats, in the sense that they are writing, performing, producing and self-editing,” says Kent Alterman, head of original programming and development for Comedy Central. “They’re constantly honing their material with a live audience.”
As such, comedians are uniquely suited to this particular moment, when both the tools and outlets exist to share their material directly with fans — and receive instant feedback in return.
“The fastest way to get someone’s attention on the Internet is still a laugh, whether it’s a cat falling off a coffee table or two comics having a funny conversation — that stuff gets passed around an office or between friends faster,” says Edwards, whose latest project is a Web-based animated series called “Krogzilla” commissioned by Smosh.com and Shut Up! Cartoons.
“Comedians are doing a lot of super-innovative stuff to get their voice out there,” Edwards continues. “There was a time when the only thing we could hope for was that one of three networks would want to do a sketch show. We’re now living in a very interesting era. I’d call it the era of ‘do it yourself.’ Today, you’re not waiting for a distribution channel to come along; you are the distribution.”
While groups like BriTANick and Derrick Comedy (where “Community” star Donald Glover got his start) consciously strive to create popular online videos by applying their film-school training to sketch comedy, not all comics are being strategic about how the Web can benefit their careers. Some simply want to share funny content.
“I understand that the potential for success if something goes viral is exciting,” says former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Jenny Slate, who was blindsided by the popularity of her homemade “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” short. “But doing things for that reason is as gross as saying, ‘Wow, there’s going to be a lot of really rich people at this party. Maybe somebody will let us drive their car around.’ ”
Slate and filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp made “Marcel” for a friend’s Brooklyn art show, but once the video went viral, they followed through by creating a bestselling children’s book and developing a TV show around the talking-snail character.
Rob Corddry was equally surprised by the way audiences responded to “Children’s Hospital,” but seized the opportunity to expand the Web series — a parody of TV medical dramas that later migrated to Adult Swim (where its fourth season premieres next month).
“It was definitely not calculated,” says Corddry, who moved to Los Angeles at precisely the wrong time to find work. ” ‘Children’s Hospital’ was conceived out of boredom during the writers’ strike.”
The experience built upon Corddry’s experience as a correspondent for “The Daily Show” and forced him to develop his skills as a writer and producer. “Some of my (actor) friends, they panic when a job is over because they consider themselves unemployed, and I haven’t felt like that since I started doing ‘Children’s,’ ” he says.
The fact that comics can now create and post their own content has changed the game on the industry side as well. “There’s no having to wait for an audition or for someone to see the sketch group you’re in,” says comedy management vet Judi Brown-Marmel, a partner at Levity Entertainment Group. “These days, when you’re pitching somebody over the phone, you feel like they’re Googling that person as you say the name, so your online presence matters. There’s this sense that you’re only as good as you’re Googled.”
At Comedy Central, Alterman sees the Web as a potential source for both talent and programming. “One of our biggest hits came from the Internet,” he says, referring to the net’s “Workaholics” sitcom. “What you’re getting now are the people who don’t really have a profile or even a lot of experience, but they’re going directly to creating their own videos to get noticed.”
According to Edwards, the Web gets around one of the greatest challenges of pitching: “In the past, what executives could never see was execution, but it’s not just a pitch in a room anymore. Now they can see a micro-version of what the show could be.”
Googling for giggles | In pursuit of podcasting | The Honorees
10 Comics to Watch